Material evidence

Like many people, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry – I even had a poster of them on my wall as a student many years ago.

I loved the vividness of the colours and the representations of medieval life. I’m sure I’m not unique, I’ve always found illustrations fascinating as something that tells us about daily life.

One thing I didn’t notice until someone pointed it  out over the weekend is that in the picture for February, two of the people warming themselves by the fire are quite clearly not wearing any underwear.

This of course raises two, possibly three questions:

  • Did medieval French peasants typically wear undergarments?
  • Was it normal for people to expose themselves to each other in a home setting?
  • Is the artist having us on?

The answer to the first questing is that we don’t know. We have evidence from various ribald stories such as the Fabliaux suggesting that women typically did not. For men we have rather less evidence although I have seen an illustration elsewhere of peasants in winter in which one of the peasants is wearing a tunic slightly too short for him …

There is also the hypothesis from the department of interesting and odd ideas that the rise of the printing industry in the fifteenth century was dependent on a source of good quality paper. In medieval times good quality paper was made from linen rags, and these only became readily available when people started wearing more undergarments, as the paper was in fact made from worn out medieval underclothing, and as such the rise of the paper industry is tied to the increase in the standard of living and quality of clothing in late medieval times.

And while analogy is dangerous, we do know that in other robe wearing societies such as rural Morocco, men tended not to wear undergarments, or at least they didn’t until fairly recently.

As for sitting companionably round the fire with ones’s bits dangling, they may or they may not – we have no evidence either way – which leads to the third question – was this a bit of whimsy?

And the answer is, of course it could have been – the artist could have perhaps seen people inadvertently exposing themselves, in much the same way as sometimes happens in summer when the person in front of us is unloading their supermarket trolley – and decide to put it in as a little joke at the expense of the peasantry.

There is of course a more serious point here.

People tend not to write about the mundane and everyday things, especially in a society where literacy is the preserve of the elite. When they do, such as Seneca’s letter about the baths in Rome the are often trying to be witty and clever, like whoever drew the February illustration in Les Tres Riches Heures, and while there may be a kernel of truth, separating fact from fiction can be difficult.

And in consequence we know very little of the everyday lives of people – and personally I’ve always found everyday lives more interesting that those of knichtis, potestatis and prelatis to quote Dunbar.

After we move into the early modern period it of course becomes easier to understand more of the lives of ordinary people, mostly because the development of printing made the production of cheap news sheets, ballad sheets and the like possible, and these were often illustrated with basic woodcuts which show us something of daily life …

Written with StackEdit.

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About dgm

IT professional, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical and medieval historian ...
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